Common (Public) Nuisance and the Fear of Smallpox

June 28, 2011 at 2:12 pm Leave a comment

“The fears of mankind, though they may be reasonable, will not create a nuisance” – Defence counsel, R v Vantandillo, (1815), 4 M & S 72, 105 ER 76 (KB).

In R v Vantandillo, a mother was convicted and sentenced to three months imprisonment for “unlawfully and injuriously” carrying his infant son, who was infected with smallpox, along a public highway. The case is one of many that fall under the “grab bag” common law offence of common or public nuisance. The case also provides some insights on the strict liability quality of public nuisance qua crime. Here’s how:

  • A “judgment by default” was entered against the defendant. I am not familiar with the history of this procedure, but I doubt that it means the same thing as a default judgment in the context of civil proceedings. If I were to guess, I would say that a conviction was simply entered against the defendant upon notice of the indictment. Some statements in the case report support this theory. For example, it is reported that “the defendant having suffered judgment by default, appeared to receive the sentence of the Court,” which suggests that an actual trial was dispensed with. Also, at the sentencing hearing, Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough, responding to the defence counsel’s contention that it was entirely possible that the only reason her client presented her child on the street was to obtain medical advice, noted (in a somewhat circular fashion) that even though the “necessity” defence could be proved by evidence, such defence was precluded by the mere fact that the “indictment alleged that [the offence was committed]…unlawfully and injuriously.”
  • The defence counsel argued that the mother’s actions were neither unlawful nor injurious to anyone. According to him, since the indictment did not state how the child caught the disease or that he was purposefully inoculated with smallpox by or at his mother’s request, it was perfectly reasonable to assume that the reason why she exposed the child in the streets was to obtain medical treatment (inoculating or procuring the inoculation of a person was also a common law offence, even if commonly relied on at that time as a preventative from smallpox). This act by itself (i.e. the actions of caring mother), he argued, could not be unlawful. On the question of injury, he argued that since the indictment did not show that the child carried some outward manifestation of smallpox (such as sores) as the time of exposure, it cannot be concluded with certainty that there was any injury presented by the situation. He noted that without such outward evidence (as in the case of leprosy, and by analogy to the writ of de leproso amovendo), it would be difficult to distinguish between infected persons who pose an injury to the public and those who do not.

The court rejected both arguments. It surely must not have helped the defendant’s case that the prosecution alleged that “the passage in which the defendant had exposed the child was a cul de sac, extremely narrow; that there was a small school kept there, and that two of the children had caught the disorder and died.”


Entry filed under: Historical case law. Tags: , , , , , .

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Reflections on health law and policy in early Canadian history


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